The popular phrase, “It’s a relationship, not a religion” has always bothered me. Like teachings that claim Jesus would have gone to the cross had it been only me who was lost, something rubs me wrong with claims like that. I am processing an idea about why it bothers me. I think I know at least one reason.
My relationship with my wife and daughter, the two closest people to me, run into trouble when I have a false concept of who they are. When I don’t allow my daughter to grow up, when I see my wife the way I want her, not as she is, I am relating wrongly to them.
My daughter lives 5 hours from us, and we don’t hear everything that happens in her life. Sometimes, it seems we only hear the bad stuff. It’s easy for us to believe her life is all bad or tough, and we want to be the ones to rescue her. The truth is often very different. She often shares the good with her closest friends, rather than us.
My wife has “issues”. She has amazing strengths, talents, gifts, and skills. She also struggles in areas, sometimes in her walk with her Savior. In general terms, she’s just like everyone else, including me. So, when I make decisions, react, or act without considering all of who she is, or without consulting her, I am liable to make a bad “relational” decision, action, or reaction. Again, this is generally true for all of us.
Not only are these example not unusual, they are truly common. We know we need, should, or will work on our earthly relationships. How common is it for us to do the same with our Creator? How common is it for us to try to get to know Him truly, as He is? It’s not easy work, and there are dangers.
Relationships are messy. So, when we use some version of a claim to have a “relationship” with our Savior, we should expect it to be messy, and not entirely on our part. Think about WHO we have that relationship with. He is not your spouse, nor your parent or child. We may use those terms as metaphors, but they are not adequate descriptions.
In the vacuum of our understanding of our Creator, we tend to “fill in the blanks” on our own. The truth is often very different than our imagination. Consider just the crazy difference between how we imagine our Savior, and someone capable of forming stars and galaxies with the spoken word. Those two things are very different. And we sort of fill in the blanks in between. But with what?
In this context, this passage may apply to us:
To whom can you compare God?Isaiah 40:18-20 NET
To what image can you liken him?
A craftsman casts an idol;
a metalsmith overlays it with gold
and forges silver chains for it.
To make a contribution one selects wood that will not rot;
he then seeks a skilled craftsman
to make an idol that will not fall over.
We skip right through these passages, assuming they don’t apply to us, the dangers described are no our dangers. The truth may be more unsettling. Think through the pragmatic elements described. The idol is more “tangible”, the idol is propped up so it doesn’t totter, the wood that won’t rot, it’s gold-plated, silver chains.
We like to worship a “good god”. But what do we mean by that? Is God still good when my circumstances aren’t? We say that God is loving, or God is love. But when we hurt, when disaster or catastrophe strikes, do we still think of God as loving?
And those may be when our Savior shines the brightest for you. So, is your Savior the one who caused a man to be born blind for His glory? Do you worship a Creator who heals a guy who shows no faith or interest in following Him, and yet, doesn’t heal everyone? Do you praise the God who destroyed everyone the planet, except a single family?
Sure, we love to quote Jeremiah 29:11, but what about 1 through 10? Are we willing to consider the One with plans for us but leaves us in captivity? Are you willing to worship Job’s God? When we say “God is good, all the time” and echo back, “And all the time, God is good”, do we have in mind the God brining disaster on cities (Amos 3:6).
I’ll bring it up again, Jephthah, after the Spirt of Yahweh came upon him, offered God whatever came through his door first. His daughter came through the door and, though it wrecked him, he offered her up. He gave God the choice, and God chose his only daughter. And the faith of Jephthah (see Hebrews 11:32) was present in his daughter, who submitted willingly to the sacrifice. And before you claim Jephthah was wrong, consider Hebrews 11. And consider God required the same of Abraham with Isaac. There God changed his mind, but up to that point, His command and its effect remained on Abraham. What if the order had not changed?
Will you worship your Savior knowing these things about Him? Consider the parable of the Kingdom in Matthew 22:1-14, the king is harsh and that is heaven. Consider the parable of of the Ten Minas in Luke 19:11-27, especially verse 27. This is heaven. Is this what you look forward to, Who you worship? Is your Savior truly good, as you define the word? When you think of God as love, what do you have in mind? Is it these things?
You have probably guessed where I’m going with this. The uncomfortable reality is that, unless we worship our Creator as He has revealed Himself, we worship idols. As the nation of Israel suffered for this sin, so will we. Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many powerful deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!’Matthew 7:21-23 NET
Did you notice that, even though they prophesied, cast out demons, and did many powerful deeds in your name, they were cast out. Tremble. This is the sort of thing that should help us “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”. Is your Savior your “friend”? Okay, but consider that means you are close, very close to the most dangerous being in existence.
It is with good reason that James calls us to weep and wail before our Creator (James 4:4-10). I suppose instead of “fearless” we should dive into the truths of God in spite of fear. Stand near Him, trembling and nearly wetting our pants. Be unsure about whether to embrace, fall on our face, or bow our heads before Him. Stutter and stammer in our words to Him because we are in awe of Him.
So, is it still “about a relationship, not about a religion”? If, for you, it is, then be sure you are relating to the right God, not some god which only exists in your imagination. Religion, whatever that means for you, may help remind you of the awe of your Creator. On the other hand, religion, if it’s only rote, separates and insulates you from your Savior.
Both approaches have dangers and flaws. And both approaches can be correct. Each can serve to deepen the other and give meaning to the other. Maybe our “call to worship” should sound more like this:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:Job 38:1-3 NET
“Who is this who darkens counsel
with words without knowledge?
Get ready for a difficult task like a man;
I will question you
and you will inform me.